Is Christian Hope Speculation?

One word that has come up a few times in the last year’s discussion about life after death, about heaven and hell, and about who goes where, is the word “speculation.” A number of folks have used it, but two notables who have pushed against traditionalists with that word are Rob Bell and Shane Hipps. Is the Christian hope in life after death, in “heaven” (however understood), in eternal life, speculation? I cringe when I hear “speculation” because I wonder how extensive such a view is. Is it all speculation? Just speculation? Or is just some of it speculation? What of the Big Four: return of Christ, last judgment, resurrection, and new creation?

A simplistic reaction to the “it’s speculation, after all” claim is to affirm or assert or dig one’s ground on the doctrine of Scripture. There’s a better way, and it’s a deeper way. The Christian hope is not simply believing the Bible. I will say it with Greek words and then spell this out as we discuss Tony Thiselton’s Life after Death. Here it is: euangelion is epangelia. (Gospel is promise.)

But before we get there, a little more look at this reason for the word “speculation.” We live in an evidence-based culture, and what is the “evidence” for life after death? Wittgenstein contended that propositions cannot get us beyond what we already know, they can express nothing that is higher than our world. Schleiermacher said what we know about life after death is at best approximation, and even Augustine knew that life after death transcends what language can describe.  Some have suggested we have to use “models” that can reach beyond.

Thiselton, though, pushes harder: Locke suggested “entitled” beliefs could rest on revelation; some argue for forms of logical positivism (like Clifford and Ayer), but this accords privileged status to the principle of verification (which can’t be proven on its own basis). Materialism is materialism.

Thiselton’s argument is that life after death is to be found in the logic of promise, not in the logic of evidence. It is a trust in “things not seen” (in the future, in the beyond) on the basis of who God is and what God has done (Heb 11:1). We look to the future because of God’s promise, because of what God has done and because of who God is. Gospel entails promise. Trust is to believe in and act on that promise. This kind of trust is not simply putting ourselves in God’s hands for his decision; that is not quite trust. It is to believe in God and to lean into God’s promise as our life.

Thiselton’s method is hermeneutics and theorists, so he goes to Searle’s famous distinction between “statement” and “promise,” and there is an inherent direction to each term. Statements have words that match the world while promises match the world to the words. They are performative utterances that reshape the world to the promise. Promise, then, summons us to a radical reorientation of life toward a future.

Promises entail commitments of the one who promises (God); they entail binding commitment; they also entail personal responsibility. Covenant is one such promise.

So, to say the Christian hope (life after death and heaven and hell and other such topics) is “speculation” is to counter the promissory nature of the way God works in this world in Jesus Christ, the way God has spoken in Scripture, and the way God has chosen to commit himself to us in covenant. To call this speculation is an affront to the integrity and faithfulness of God. The better word is “hope,” and our response is not despair but trust, a trust established by the kind of God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.faithinireland.wordpress.com Patrick Mitchel

    “Promise, then, summons us to a radical reorientation of life toward a future.”

    Scot, I love that sentence. Perfectly captures the nature of Christian hope. ‘Speculation’ is a terrible way to describe Christian eschatology. Moltmann is on the money in saying ‘Christianity is eschatology, is hope.’

    I suppose ‘speculation’ is really a push against Christian over-confidence of what can be known about the future. Sure there is plenty to critique there, but it seems to me that the baby is getting thrown out with the bath water and Christian hope getting diluted in the process.

    This looks like a really interesting book, thanks for posting on it.

  • scotmcknight

    Patrick, the image of that mound reminded me of Newgrange.

    You are probably right about the word being used to push against over-confidence, but when it is used it is really important what one thinks is speculative and what one thinks is firm in our faith. I really do cringe when I hear the term “speculation.” It blows it all out of the water.

    My hope is that this book will become a standard text. It is that good.

  • RJS

    This is a fantastic post – there is so much in it. I am going to have to think about the idea of promise.

  • Kelly

    Well said! I don’t like the word “speculation” either because it signifies uncertainty bordering on full-fledged doubt, and the NT gives us more footholds to go on than speculation.

  • John W Frye

    Scot, could Thistelton’s push back on speculative eschatology be a sharp remonstrance to all the dispensational cr*p prevalent in a large segment of USAmerican evangelicalism? I grew up in that stuff and after awhile I got theologically sickened by eschatology. I felt it (speculative ‘end times’ stuff) was personally and pastorally useless. It tries to make the church full of worrisome wizards, not holy, enduring people.

  • scotmcknight

    John, the pushback on speculative is my stuff and not so much Tony’s. It’s the context I set for his stuff. Yes, obsession with rapture dates is the stuff of speculation, but I sense the more recent stuff had to do with who is in and who is not, with stuff like that.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    I think many people today, including Christians, think of hope more as speculation. “Maybe so. Maybe not. We’ll see.” But it seems to me that in the Bible, hope is a matter of expectation. Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” I take that to mean that faith is the substance, or underlying reality, of what we are expecting. Faith is believing the promise of God, expecting that it will eventually come to pass. The facts of the world (the way the world is at present) must eventually line up with the truth (the promise God has made). Faith is expecting it to be so.

  • Trish Broemsen

    I agree that we certainly have to be care when we use the word “speculation”. What exactly are we saying we’re “speculating” about? From my reading/hearing of Rob and Shane thus far, I have not gotten that they are “speculating” about “The Hope” in Christ, otherwise why would they (or Rob anyway) conclude “Love Wins”.

  • http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com/ James Goetz

    Depending on particular contexts, I might refer to my eschatology as “hope/faith” or I might refer to my eschatology as “speculation/conjecture.” For example, in a philosophical discussion, I typically refer to my eschatology as conjecture. But in a church teaching, I typically refer to my eschatology as biblical doctrine and faith.

  • Tim Marsh

    I wonder if Rob Bell intended for “speculation” to mean that he is not certain about the probability of life-after-death. Rather, he seems to be targeting those who are “certain” about what heaven is like, how God’s future hope is going to work itself out, and the eternality of hell. It’s interesting how “certain” Christians, especially (we) evangelicals, can be about the things that neither Paul nor Jesus, for that matter, ever claim as certain.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    It seems to me, the evidence of God’s future is the real and tangible work of the Holy Spirit (as well as its absence).

    If I hold that God’s Spirit is beginning to make things now into the future described in Scripture (for example transforming a human person: desires, attitudes, and all) then I have clear empirical and existential evidence for heaven.

    So too, the line that many (including Bell and Hipps) follow, that we can see some human beings and human societies falling apart and looking far more hellish (what Tolkien pictured with his wraiths and CS Lewis with souls who were surrendering all that was human and becoming just a noise) is empirically (in others) and existentially (in one’s self) verifiable.

  • Alan K

    My hunch is that “speculation” is the byproduct of reading and understanding the NT primarily salvation-historically. If the NT is read apocalyptically, then speculation doesn’t really have a place to exist.

  • http://www.OfDustAndKings.com T. E. Hanna

    I love what Jeff Doles said about hope being a matter of expectation. I would also add that it is a matter of trust.

    The first thing that comes to my mind is the same standard we apply to the trustworthiness of ancient historical documents: if it proves true in matters that can be verified, it should be trusted in matters that can’t. In the same way, if the character of God continues to be demonstrated as trustworthy (both historically and personally), then that trust is earned in matters of promise.

    Thus, the details may be speculative – what is heaven like? What exactly is a glorified body? etc. – but the promise is one of hope, expectation, and trust. If Jesus was resurrected, we can trust that we, too, will obtain the resurrection into eternal life.

  • http://rising4air.wordpress.com MikeK

    I’m reading Newbigin’s The Other Side of 1984, and I was delighted to discover he takes a similar approach as Thistleton: the new creation is- among other things- a promise. A similar tack is taken throughout his writings.

    Great post.

  • Kaleb

    Scot,

    If you look at Rob’s work it seems like speculation is dealing with the ‘in people’ passing judgement on ‘out people’. Ghandi is in Hell is a form of speculation. That was the point of the book…people go around speculating who is in and who is out. And that loses the WHOLE message of Jesus to live out Kingdom here, now, in the present as if it is reality- you wrote about this in your book. Bell has never asserted in his books or in church that we cannout live out our confidence in the promise that God will take care of us in the future life or that it doesn’t exist; in fact he is quite enfatic that we ‘know’ by living into our future reality. That hardly seems like speculation.

    I am afraid you have over speculated about much of Bell’s speculations.

  • Kaleb

    sp. ~Emphatic

  • scotmcknight

    Kaleb, I’m not so sure it is “speculation” to talk about Ghandi, at least not for many in the evangelical movement who think one must be born-again (etc) to be in heaven. And I heard Rob say this in two other contexts where it was not at all clear how extensive that speculation might be. But I did say that much of the anti-speculation stuff had to do with “who is in” and “who is not.” But here’s the issue: to call speculation what many evangelicals think is bone-dry clear in the NT (exclusivists, for instance) is an insult to their beliefs.

  • Kaleb

    Scot,

    I agree to an extent… but Jesus even says that some that have ‘believed’ or thought to be ‘born again’ will not be allowed in. The whole ‘Lord, Lord didn’t we drive out demons in your name… I never knew you thing’. So I hardly think that someone can say that any type of judgement passed, even on Ghandi, isn’t beyond a degree of speculation.

    It is an offensive to those that take Scripture seriously to say that exclusivists definition of ‘born-again’ is the measuring stick. Not that your one of those folks, but you get my point. Thanks for your comment.

  • scotmcknight

    Kaleb, I think I’d point to Matt 25 instead of Matt 7, since Matt 7 makes kingdom participants less not more. I know what you mean by the offensiveness, but that’s what I was addressing really. Frankly, I think Rob and Shane, and they are not the only ones, were not clear enough when they spoke about speculation, and I can’t number the times that same expression has been repeated, in ways that make anything about life after death is speculation. I want to drive a big No-Go on that word “speculation” because anything about life after death has to be anchored in God’s promise, not some kind of eschatological schemes.

  • Kaleb

    Scot, I have never heard, nor read, either Shane or Rob speculating about the existence of Heaven or Hell. Yes, they may have questioned what they look like, but never their existence. Rob even says we have a taste of those things now by what life we live into in his recent book. I also have not heard them ever use speculation as a way of saying those place may not even be there at all!

    So I guess I understand if they were saying we don’t even know if these places are there for us, but they are NOT saying that anywhere.

    They are saying that people that claim to know who is there, who is not there, the full details of that life, or anything else in that line are things which are not yet fully revealed. If someone is going in this realm of the not fully revealed facts about Heaven and Hell they are well within the realm of speculation by definition since they are not yet fully known. Our hope is not speculation, it is promise to those that surrender their will to Jesus, but how that hope is played out, who goes where, in what way they had to ‘surrender’, and ect is speculation-not about the place, but about who goes there and the details of that space. Do you agree with that?

  • scotmcknight

    Kaleb, let’s talk facts. This is Shane Hipps:

    There is a lot of talk these days about heaven and hell. Recently, a handful of best-selling books have been published on this topic (23 Minutes in Hell, Erasing Hell, Heaven Is for Real, God Wins). Some of these are in direct response to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (incidentally and ironically, a book almost entirely concerned with this life, not the next one).

    As a Christian who believes in the Bible and Jesus, I have found the intensity and certainty of the debate all very bizarre. It’s strange that so much passion and ink has been spilled over something that is all speculation.

    Here’s what I mean: If you died, took pictures, and came back to life again, then you would know with certainty what happens after death. Of course, you would only know what happens to you, not everyone else. But if you haven’t died, you can only speculate about what happens to you and everyone else.

    This speculation is perfectly fine. As long as we recognize these are only our beliefs. And beliefs by nature are not certain; they are faith based assumptions. That’s what makes them beliefs. Once you can prove them, they are no longer beliefs; they become a kind of knowing. And the funny thing is once you know, you don’t need to debate anymore.

    And this he says: I consider a possibility when it’s something I don’t know. This is something I merely believe. Either because someone I trust told me, or the Bible seems to say it, or reason supports it. But until I’ve experienced it, this is only something I believe– a possibility. And possibilities should be held with an open hand, perhaps with some humility and even humor. Who knows, I could be wrong about what I believe?

    As I read him, he’s saying more than what you are saying he’s saying. He gets close to saying what’s not directly experienced is (just?) belief and not certainty (why use that term?); he gets close to making knowing what we have experienced. He’s putting this stuff into the realm of belief and belief is less than knowledge. As I read the Bible, the after life is rooted not in what we can know and what we cannot know but in whom we trust. There’s a big difference here.

    And “all speculation”? Really?

  • Kaleb

    ‘all speculation’ is refering to the exact beliefs about the afterlife, not that they exist at all. He is talking of people that ‘know’ exactly who is there, not about the existence of Heaven of Hell. I think you are reading into a bit too much to equate this that Shane is saying all beliefs in Heaven/Hell are speculative; he is just saying what happens when you get there is and who goes there is. Could this be possible, but somehow it is possible that you are seeing it as Heaven/Hell are speculative?

  • scotmcknight

    Kaleb, if I used the term “speculation” I would make it very clear what I thought was speculation and what was solid Christian faith.

  • http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com/ James Goetz

    scotmcknight said, ‘I want to drive a big No-Go on that word “speculation” because anything about life after death has to be anchored in God’s promise, not some kind of eschatological schemes.’

    Scot, Wipf and Stock recently released my book CONDITIONAL FUTURISM: NEW PERSPECTICE OF END-TIME PROPHECY that includes a biblical defense for exclusivist postmortem conversions. If my biblical interpretation is correct, then there is valid speculation about Ghandi’s postmortem acceptance of Christ’s. Would you like to review my book?

  • scotmcknight

    I’ll give it a look… but can’t promise a review.

  • Kaleb

    Scot, thanks for your interaction I appreciate your thoughts. I know my thoughts do not carry anything near the weight of yours, but I do not think this measuring stick you are using is a fair one.

    If I understand correctly you wish that they, Shane and Rob, would have just clarified they believe in Heaven and Hell as Biblical foundations of our faith prior to talking about the other things they see as ‘speculation’, because by not doing so they confuse the reader of what is actual speculative? By not saying that they believe Heaven/Hell are promises in Scripture, and then talking about ‘speculation’, they somehow leave it vague to the reader if they are speaking of Heaven and Hell as speculation, rather than the who is in/who is out type of speculation.

    I think that it may be a bit unfair to expect folks to clarify every time that they speak that they believe in the foundations of the faith, especially if they have already affirmed those matters of faith elsewhere, which both Shane and Rob have done. When you teach I am sure that you do not get up and affirm all core doctrines prior to talking on specific issues. Your students, the ones you aim to teach, already know you and just because you may have not mentioned salvation by faith in Jesus when teaching on different eschatologies doesn’t mean you believe it in any less; especially if you have affirmed it other times. That is why I feel that this is an unfair measuring stick to make someone reaffirm what they have already said elsewhere.

    Yes, I agree it could have been more clear by saying that, but do they need to say it EVERYTIME, every other time, or one in five times that they speak? How much is enough because it has been said elsewhere by them?

  • Kaleb

    ~not a fair one.

    ..

  • Chris White

    Kaleb,

    I understand what you are saying. Communication can be tricky and the one who is communicating should seek to be as clear as possible in getting the message across. Even then the receivers may misunderstand because they hear from their own background, nuances on word usage, context they place the subject within and other factors. Comparison and contrasts within the communication need to clear or else you will have a miscommunication.

    Believers need to discuss any communication problems and clarify their intended meanings with an openness and a humble demeanor. But we can’t just ignore such things, (not that you have suggested such).


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